Remarks on Community Building and Countering Violent Extremism
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you so much. Thank you. Asalaam Alaikum. Thank you very much. Maryam, thank you very, very much. Good morning everybody. Good morning to all of you – your Excellency Governor Tambuwal; your Excellency Governor Yari; your Eminence, Sultan, who was very, very kind to host us here today and whose leadership I particularly appreciate with respect to all of the interfaith efforts, which are so important; Charge Brennan; leaders from Nigeria’s religious communities; teachers and students – thank you very, very much for being here. You honor me by being here and it’s my privilege to be the first secretary of state in history to come to Sokoto. I’m very honored to be here. (Applause.)
I want to thank Maryam for that very kind introduction, and for the good work that she is doing in her community to promote social entrepreneurship and youth education and women’s health.
This is my third visit to Nigeria in the past 20 months, and I’m delighted to be here. One of Nigeria’s strengths is its diversity, which grows out of the distinctive contributions and culture of the various regions. And Sokoto is the place with an extraordinary history of faith, of tolerance, and of scholarship in all of its forms. And I just came from a meeting a few minutes ago in which I heard from various religious leaders and from his Eminence of the work that they are doing to try to embrace tolerance and provide opportunity for people.
So this is a very special region. You don’t need me to tell you that, but I want to make sure the world hears how special this region is. And it is special because the teachings of religion and ethics are prioritized right alongside the virtues of reading, writing, math, and science. Many of your former leaders actually started out as school teachers, including, of course, the inspiring Ahmadu Bello.
In fact – (applause) – shortly after he graduated from a teaching college, and years before he founded the university that today bears his name, Ahmadu Bello returned to his birthplace – not far from here, in Rabah – in hopes of educating his community. And at the time, there was no school. So he built a thatched hut where he began instructing children in his own family how to read and write. Then he asked his young scribes to teach their friends what they had learned, and to keep expanding the circle so that the number of educated citizens would continue to grow.
That kind of commitment has made a huge difference in Nigeria. And I expect that Ahmadu Bello would be proud that, in the country today, school attendance, literacy, and graduation rates are higher than ever before. But he wouldn’t be satisfied, and you know that. Because even late in his career he declared a “war on ignorance,” and that is a war that much of the world is still fighting every single day well beyond Nigeria. The reason is that to some people in this world knowledge is not a goal to be pursued, but rather it is an enemy to be destroyed.
As everyone in this room well knows, in its quest to destroy knowledge, the terrorist group Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people, displaced more than 2 million, and flung some 7 million Nigerians into hunger, thirst, and desperate need. On Sunday, they descended into a small village near Chibok in the middle of the night, looting every home that they saw, and then they took food and livestock before burning those huts to the ground. They killed 10 people that night and abducted 13 others – women and children – adding to the thousands of other victims, including the hundreds of girls, of Chibok girls who were abducted more than two years ago.
Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance. In the past two years, it has used more than 100 women and girls to carry out suicide attacks. They actually teach girls how to hold a bomb under their armpits so that the explosives remain steady. They show teenagers how to use swords to decapitate. We might as well ask how anyone could be brainwashed into such atrocities, but because the children are so young and because the abuse that they suffer is so great, even brave souls can be broken. This then is what Boko Haram is all about – and you know this better than I do – not just murdering innocent people, but also transforming the most vulnerable people among us into killers of their neighbors – their own families – and even themselves.
Now certainly northeastern Nigeria is not the only region that is plagued by violent extremism. And sadly, Boko Haram isn’t the only terrorist group that we face in the world today. Earlier this year, an Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaida killed 30 people when they bombed a hotel in Burkina Faso. Over the first six months of 2016, the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 500 people, mostly in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And just a few days ago, al-Shabaab militants killed 15 people and injured more than 80 when they detonated an attack near an open market in Galkaayo in Somalia. And terrorists from or inspired by Daesh have carried out vicious attacks in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States of America.
So make no mistake: We do not have to be the prisoners of this violent extremism. It can be eliminated. No one anywhere has to live, or should have to live, among this evil. And it is evil. But it isn’t going to disappear on its own, and that is something that his Eminence the Sultan understands better than anybody as he preaches tolerance and brings interfaith groups together in order to do the hard work of pushing back against extremism. It takes work and it takes leadership. And it will require sustained effort from all of us – from regional, national, and sub-national leaders, from the United Nations and other multinational institutions. It’ll take great efforts by law enforcement and civil society. And I want you to know today that the United States is deeply committed to this effort, including by helping our partners to be able to build counterterrorism capacity. That is why at the State Department we introduced a countering violent extremism strategy earlier this year, and it is why we are working so hard to implement it – though I might add you all are already, under the leadership of the governor and the sultan, are already engaged in your own countering violent extremism efforts.
There’s no question in recent months that important progress has been made, and particularly here in Nigeria. Over the last six months, the Nigerian army has rescued thousands of civilian hostages. Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters surrendered to Nigerian forces. In July, Nigerian troops captured 16 of the group’s leaders who admitted that they were running out of food, that their fighters were living off roots and unripe fruit. And just last week, your army thwarted an attack in the northeast and took out more than a dozen militants in the process.
The fact is that through the Multinational Joint Task Force – with help from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – Nigeria and its neighbors are steadily degrading Boko Haram’s capabilities. Your country has taken back most of the territory that the terrorists had once captured. And Cameroon, Niger, and Chad, and Benin have made important contributions and enormous sacrifices in areas along Nigeria’s borders.
But we also know that beating Boko Haram on the battlefield is only the beginning of what we need to do. As the American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to only one who is striking at the root.” So we have to strike at the root causes of violent extremism.
To win the struggle for the future, nations need to do more than just denounce bankrupt, dead-end ideologies that the terrorists support. They also have to offer their citizens an alternative that is better, that offers hope, that actually delivers on its promises.
Now we have learned a lot about extremism in the last years. We obviously have been consumed by the fight against it since 2001, when out of the blue the attacks in New York took place. People join violent extremist groups for a number of different reasons – and some, obviously, do so against their will. But there are far too many who join the ranks of these organizations because they have trouble finding meaning or opportunity in their daily lives – because they are deeply frustrated and alienated – and because they hope groups like Boko Haram will somehow give them a sense of identity, or purpose, or power.
We see this in every part of the world – whether we are talking about the Lake Chad Basin or the Sahel, or a village in the Middle East or a city in Western Europe, it’s the same. When people – and particularly young people – have no hope for the future and no faith in legitimate authority – when there are no outlets for people to express their concerns – then aggravation festers and those people become vulnerable to outside influence. And no one knows that better than the violent extremist groups, which regularly use humiliation and marginalization and inequality and poverty and corruption as recruitment tools.
So one of our tasks, one of our central tasks – and almost every single religious leader I just heard in the other room talked about this task – has to be to remove the vulnerabilities in our own position. To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria has a long legacy of supporting – values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights. Values that the terrorists don’t just ignore, my friends, but values that they desecrate and try to destroy at every turn that they can.
So to start with, it is essential to build and rebuild trust in government, trust in the military, trust in law enforcement community, wherever that trust has been diminished.
The fight against corruption has to be a global security priority of the first order. And we, all of us, particularly those nations like mine that have so much more than other countries, have an obligation to help those countries to avoid the downside of what happens when you are left on your own. Bribery, fraud, other forms of venality endanger everything that we hold dear, everything that you value. They feed organized crime. They gnaw away at nation-states. They take away the legitimacy of a nation-state. They contribute to human trafficking. They discourage honest and accountable investment, and they undermine entire communities.
And despite recent progress, as a global community, we are collectively not yet doing nearly enough to clean up and improve governance globally – and that needs to change. We all pay for corruption, folks. We all pay for corruption. Corruption costs the global economy an estimated $2.6 trillion a year. That’s $2.6 trillion that could be going towards infrastructure, towards health care, towards education, food security, other initiatives – any number of areas where we know we need money to be able to make the investments that give young people that sense of future.
But let’s be very clear: Corruption is not just a disgrace and a crime. It is also dangerous. There is nothing more demoralizing, more destructive, more disempowering to a citizen than the belief that the system is rigged against them, the belief that the system is designed to fail them, and that people in positions of power, to use a diplomatic term, are “crooks” – crooks who are embezzling the future of their own people.
Now this is something that your president, President Buhari, understands very, very well. President Buhari was elected – (applause) – President Buhari was elected on a platform of clean government and the United States strongly supports the steps that he is taking in order to clean government. (Applause.) Nigeria is already a regional leader in many ways – economically and culturally – but you can also become a model in fighting corruption and the organized crime that so often goes along with it. And you have made a terrific start, a strong start, at all levels of government.
Already, President Buhari is working with civil society to encourage official transparency and accountability. It is so important to restoring trust among the people. His administration has taken important steps to prevent the theft of public funds, and to recover stolen assets. Last May, I joined him at the Anti-Corruption Summit in London, where he announced that Nigeria would join the Open Government Partnership – a step that will further strengthen the country’s anti-crime efforts, and advance institutional integrity, economic development, and citizen engagement.
Now of course, building public trust in government also requires cooperation from law enforcement and the military. It is understandable that in the wake of terrorist activity, some people are tempted to crack down on everyone and anyone who could theoretically pose some sort of a threat. I caution against that today. Extremism cannot be defeated through repression or just creating fear. Fear instilled through repression invites not confidence; it invites contempt. It creates terrorists – trust creates citizens.
Progress in this fight against corruption is going to go a long way to bringing Nigerians closer together, and creating confidence in the integrity of government institutions. And it would also unleash the enormous potential that you have for economic growth, which exists in every single part of your country – and that would obviously be good for Nigeria, good for Africa, but be a good for everybody else in the world.
Any government’s most basic duty is to meet the needs of its people – and good, accountable government, just plain old good governance, is basically the key, but it’s not the end of the story. In this country, more than 60 percent of your population is under the age of 25 years old. So it matters to all of us whether or not these young people are able to gain access to education and jobs that will enable them to contribute to their communities in beneficial ways.
We also know that the economy in this country has been hurt by the fall in oil prices and by shortages of infrastructure, especially in energy. A modern economy must have access to power; it needs ample grid capacity, the grid has to be able to deliver electricity to all parts of the country in order to keep the lights on, in order to enable a company to work, in order to build a factory, in order to let a business thrive; and it has to be supported by enough roads and bridges and rail lines and port facilities to connect producers to consumers with as little delay and expense as possible. But a modern economy also requires investments in its people – that’s the key – in schools at all levels, and in programs that train and prepare graduates in order to be able to compete in the global marketplace.
That is why the United States is partnering with the Nigerian Government and international donors to open temporary schools and other non-formal learning centers – places where, in addition to traditional schooling, displaced children are given access to meals, counseling, and other social services that empower them to be able to learn and to be able to grow up and be full citizens. At the center of- (Applause.)
At the center of that effort is a goal that I know is shared by so many Nigerians, including President Buhari, and that is giving women and girls an equal chance to compete in the classroom and in the workplaces. I was really pleased to hear about the initiative that his Eminence the Sultan has launched to invest in girls’ education, including setting up a women’s college of medicine. When women are educated – (applause). When women are educated and empowered, societies are more productive, more democratic, more inclusive, and far more prosperous. And that is a fact, undeniable in country after country.
So my friends, improving governance and providing opportunities for all are two important pieces of the puzzle. The final piece that I want to mention today is the importance of building bridges through tolerance and acceptance – and that is another area in which Sokoto serves as a model for the region, for the country.
I mentioned Ahmadu Bello at the beginning of my remarks, and there’s an old story that I’m sure many of you have heard at one time or another. I heard his Eminence use the words a few minutes ago when we were in the meeting we were in. Shortly after Nigeria’s independence, the country’s first President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who had met briefly with Mr. Bello to discuss Nigeria’s future and ways to overcome the deep-seated ethnic and religious divisions that existed then. And as legend has it, President Azikiwe proclaimed, “Let us now forget our differences.” And Bello countered: “No – let us understand our differences.” (Applause.) And that is what his Eminence said. He said: “It is by understanding our differences that we can build unity throughout Nigeria.”
Equality and tolerance; justice and mercy; compassion and humility – these are values that transcend religions, ethnicities, and all kinds of moral codes. They are certainly in keeping with the teachings of Islam that have enriched the world for centuries.
And those who would tear our communities apart – pitting one religion or one sect against another – they can only be defeated by citizens’ unyielding commitment to unity and mutual understanding. And here I underscore: Breaking the cycle of violence requires treating those who escape or defect from Boko Haram, and particularly those who were abducted against their will, with sensitivity as they try to return to their old communities. Welcoming these individuals – especially women and girls – back into society, safely, without the threat of continued violence or discrimination – and ensuring that the millions who have been displaced here in Nigeria and throughout the region, that they get the humanitarian and government support that they desperately need – that is the only way to move a community forward, beyond the turbulence of these times. That is something that the United States is working very, very hard to support, and we will continue to work with you as you engage in this extremely important work.
My friends, all of these efforts – fighting corruption, promoting good governance, promoting opportunity for men and women alike, showing compassion and understanding for fellow citizens, even when it’s difficult – all of these things will do an enormous amount to reduce the threat that is posed by violent extremism and to prevent it from re-emerging in the future. This is the way you invest in a future that is free from violence and provides you with the stability and the peace that you so desperately want. But they are also worthy efforts in their own right. It is amazing what can be accomplished when people are empowered to succeed.
Consider the difference that a young man named Saied – who is here today – has made in his community. Saied, thank you so much. (Applause.)
Saied grew up in an impoverished community in northeast Nigeria. Conflict was very common in his neighborhood, and Saied came to believe that poverty was largely to blame. So he wanted to turn that around. When he turned 18 years old, he began to volunteer with a nongovernmental organization that provided microloans to help women start their own businesses. Later, while studying for his undergraduate degree, he led a UNICEF team that educated youth about reproductive health and AIDS, and through his work, he developed a new understanding of the lack of trust in government, of the prevalence of corruption, and the need for transparency and accountability. He started working with the Federal Inland Revenue Service – the FIRS – leading public campaigns to empower taxpayers to check on spending activities of tax officials and monitor for fraud. He spent years with the FIRS here in Sokoto, and he was honored multiple times for the mechanisms that he introduced to improve fiscal transparency and openness in the tax process. And Saied’s work to address fraud and corruption continues to this very day. Not too long ago, he launched a website called “Follow Taxes” that helps Nigerians who cannot afford a tax consultant understand how to pay what they owe, and avoid being taxed under false premises.
Now certainly, Saied could have chosen a lot of other things to do. He could have pursued a very different path. Others who grew up in his situation have chosen a lot of worse ways to air their frustrations. Instead, Saied has dedicated his life to finding solutions, and his work has helped millions of fellow citizens.
He didn’t accomplish what he has done by accident; he did it with hard work, compassionate mentors, a solid education, and the help of government programs and initiatives like the Washington Mandela Fellowship, for which he was selected in 2015. (Applause.)
Still, Saied’s story, frankly, shows us what is possible when people are given the opportunity to explore their dreams and act on their ideas. It shows what is possible when people have a stake in the community and when they are able to have confidence in their future: A citizenry that is inspired, engaged, and empowered to take on whatever challenges society confronts. That’s the way it works. That’s what Ahmadu Bello, and many of Nigeria’s great leaders have worked to pursue, and the same goal should guide all the steps that we take today. That is how we will build strong, resilient communities. That is how we will pull up terrorism by its roots. That is how we bring about the future that Nigerians and people everywhere deserve. And working together, the United States, Nigeria, and our international partners can make this happen.
Thank you for your commitment. Thank you for your work. Thank you for the privilege of being here today. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)